It was 1996, and I'd just returned to Eritrea from New York. I'd left my Peace Corps teaching post for two weeks when I heard my mother's health had declined. Colin had stayed behind in our little town, and taught my five classes as well as his own. We were very happy to be reunited.
Late on the afternoon of my return, one of my ninth grade students, Teumezghi, came by with a little package. He pressed it into my hand. "To welcome you back," he said simply, adding: "These are the fruits of the date palm tree. They are very sweet."
Really, he was the one who was sweet. It was the first (and last) time anyone had given me fruit to celebrate my return from a journey.
Of course I'd eaten dates before. You might recall my childhood obsession with cream cheese-slathered date nut bread. But since that day, nearly every time I play with plump, sticky dates and pry the pits from their yoda-like skin, I think of Teumezghi and his enormous, red-framed glasses.
I discovered recently that dates have an affinity for chocolate. The trick is to use restraint -- too much chocolaty sweetness can both overwhelm the dates' honeylike flavor and create a pairing more cloying than synergistic. So proceed delicately.
These cookies thread the needle.
If you know anyone who has just returned from an exhausting overseas journey, you can bring them some date cookies with a little note: "Here," you'll write. "Welcome home."
Recipe for Chocolate Oatmeal Date Cookies
While very chocolaty, these cookies are not overly sweet. Look for the plumpest dates you can find. If you can get your hands on whole Medjools, grab them. Their texture is far superior to the dried out, flour-dusted date pieces you'll find in the raisin aisle.
Makes 3 dozen cookies
1-1/2 sticks (6 ounces) butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1/2 cup chopped, pitted Medjool dates (about 5 dates)
1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 to 3 baking sheets with parchment or Silpats.
Using an electric mixer, beat together the butter and two sugars on medium-high speed until very creamy. Add the egg, then the vanilla, and continue beating until very light, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
In a separate bowl, sift together the two flours, baking soda, salt, and cocoa powder. With the mixer on low, use a dry measure to scoop the flour mixture into the batter. Beat for about a minute. Scrape down the sides and beat on low for another minute. Stir in the oats, dates, and chocolate chips, and beat gently just until incorporated.
Using a 1-1/2" scoop, portion the dough and place the mounts on your prepared sheets. (Work in batches if necessary.) Bake for about 15 minutes, or until firm to the touch, reversing the position of the cookie sheets halfway through.
Cool on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container.